She Said, He Said: Be open, vulnerable before going to anger during these COVID times
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
I’m finding that in the past several months, my fuse has gotten much shorter and I’ve been reacting to my wife with a higher level of anger and frustration than I ever have in the past. I’ve often felt like my wife can be a bit harsh and critical but I’ve always been able to deal with her comments before. Maybe it’s that we’re spending more time together because of COVID but I think it has more to do with a tipping point where I’ve just simply had enough. She says I need to get anger management help, which makes me feel like it’s all my fault. I think we need marriage counseling, which she refuses to do. What should I do?
Signed, Waning Wick
Lori and Jeff: Many couples are struggling right now as a result of COVID’s impact on their lives. Increased stress from general uncertainty and worry about finances, work and health has put many couples on edge. Add to that changes in routines, limitations on socialization and self-care activities, and partners spending way more time together than usual, and you have a recipe for combustion. So the first piece of advice is to try not to make any significant decisions about the relationship right now.
Lori: It’s important to do a little self-assessment. Is your fuse short only with your wife, or are you more irritable and angry in the other arenas of your life as well, like at work and in the community? Ask a few trusted loved ones for their perspectives, as sometimes it’s not easy for us to see ourselves objectively. If you receive feedback that your anger is more consistent and pervasive than you had noticed, it’s a good indication that you could use support in learning to manage and process your emotions. If on the other hand, you’re managing your feelings well except for with your spouse, the work to be done is in unpacking and understanding the dynamics between you.
Improving a relationship is most easily and effectively done when both partners are willing to make an effort. But that doesn’t mean change can’t happen with only one partner leading the charge. If you’re motivated to give this marriage a chance, you need to summon the courage to be vulnerable even if it means you may be hurt or disappointed in the end. Engaging in this type of work begins with really getting clear about your “why.” You have to recognize that without putting in the work you’re headed for a painful divorce. But committing to leaning into the marriage could mean that she quickly follows suit and you build a stronger connection. Worst case scenario is she doesn’t budge and you can either choose to stay or leave with your integrity, knowing you did everything you could.
Jeff: Traditional anger management typically focuses on identifying triggers, understanding patterns of reactivity and learning skills to mitigate the anger response. The challenge, especially if you have “situational anger” like Lori described, is that anger is a secondary emotion. It’s usually an expression of a primary emotion lying just below the surface—often related to hurt or fear. When the primary emotion is either unacknowledged or is too uncomfortable to experience, we turn to anger as a way to try to express ourselves.
Culturally, men have been taught and modeled that anger is the best way to convey feelings and get our needs met. This, unfortunately, is not the case and, in situations like yours, what might help is to try to understand what primary emotions might be driving your anger response. How does what your wife says hurt you or make you feel as though you aren’t good enough or doing enough for her? Does she invalidate your primary feelings of hurt or fear? Are you skipping over your primary emotions because you aren’t aware of them or is there hesitation to express them in concern that they would be dismissed? It would be much more effective to learn to voice your primary emotions, as risky as that may seem. Communication from that level opens up more space and possibility for discussion and resolution. Anger simply shuts everything down and creates a dynamic where you both are fighting to be right while proving the other to be wrong.
Lori and Jeff: No one wins when an argument is fueled by anger. Expression of feelings and communication about one’s experience must come from a place of openness and vulnerability. Choose to acknowledge and share your primary emotions with your wife to resolve conflicts with more grace and rebuild the connection in your marriage.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.